Illicit drug use in Ireland

Illicit drug use in Ireland & Northern Ireland has been growing since the mid-1970s.[1] The use by young people of psychedelic drugs, including LSD and cannabis, was recognized at that time. Opiate abuse was uncommon until the 1980s, following events in the opium production centres of Afghanistan and Iran. Government task forces and private programmes were formed to tackle increased opiate abuse. Dublin and Ballymena have been centres of increased heroin use and preventative efforts. Studies confirmed significant opiate use in the 1990s, when action to reduce harm caused by drug use became favoured. Programmes focussed on controlling the spread of HIV, seen as a greater social threat than drug abuse itself.



Heroin use in Ireland has always centred on Dublin, and to a lesser extent Cork city.[2] Heroin abuse became a major problem in inner-city Dublin in the late 1970s. Earlier, there was no evidence of anything more than isolated use of heroin. In December 1968, the Minister for Health, Seán Flanagan, established a working party to investigate the extent of drug abuse at the time and to advise the government. Their research, reported in 1971,[3] could not find any evidence of significant use of heroin, which they attributed to the difficulty of obtaining supplies at the time. Drug use was limited mostly to cannabis and LSD. These drugs were seen as part of student sub-culture; Dr. Hugh Byrne, a TD debating what was to be the 1977 Misuse of Drugs Act, described Trinity College Dublin as "a nest and a hive for the production of LSD [...] leaflets containing the formula of LSD have been freely sold around the campus". He blamed this activity on foreign students in areas of "advanced study".[4]

The main treatment centre for drug users was at Jervis Street Hospital. The National Drug Advisory and treatment Centre was founded there in 1969. In 1973, the Coolmine therapeutic community was founded as a voluntary body to provide a structure for people to "maintain a drug-free existence".[5]

In 1979, there was a dramatic increase in the supply of heroin to Western Europe, usually attributed to the fall of the Shah in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This marked the start of an epidemic in inner-city Dublin.[6]


The number of heroin users in Dublin continued to grow in the early 1980s. The 1983 Bradshaw Report found that in north central Dublin, 10% of 15- to 24-year-olds had used heroin in the previous year; the figure was 12% for 15- to 19-year-olds, and 13% for females of the same age group. The report also confirmed Dublin as a centre for heroin use, with only three or four heroin users in Cork and Galway.[7]

Following this report, the government created a Special Governmental Task Force on Drug Abuse in April 1983. Their report recommended funding community facilities in deprived areas, but this was at odds with government policy at the time, so the report went unpublished.[8] The government's position was that drug abusers were victims of their own choices, rather than their socio-economic circumstances.[9] The Misuse of Drugs Act 1984 was enacted to provide for tougher punishments than the 1977 Act.

The 1980s also saw the rise of community groups which organised themselves to rid their local areas of drugs. Priests, politicians and even Provisional IRA members took part in residents' associations in areas of Dublin such as Fatima Mansions, the Hardwicke Street flats, St. Teresa's Gardens, and Dolphin House. Groups met to name and shame drug dealers, giving them the choice either to stop dealing or leave the area. Actions broadened to include patrols by residents, checkpoints to search vehicles for drugs, forced evictions, and other vigilante actions. These local groups got together and adopted a constitution in February 1984, naming themselves "Concerned Parents Against Drugs".[8]

The Drug Treatment Centre Board moved to Trinity Court in 1988 following the closure of Jervis Street hospital.

The most significant event of the decade was the arrival of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to Ireland. The first diagnosed case of AIDS was in 1982. Early cases before 1987 were found in homosexual men, this soon spread to intravenous drug users, overtaking cases amongst homosexual men.[10] A survey by the Department of Health in 1986 found that 30% of intravenous drug users were HIV positive.[9]


Ireland has a drugs problem. But beyond this simple statement we must also recognise that Ireland's drugs problem is primarily an opiates problem—mainly heroin. And beyond this, we must recognise that Ireland's heroin problem is principally a Dublin phenomenon.
Pat Rabbitte, 1996.[2]

There were an estimated 13,460 opiate users in Ireland in 1996.[11] The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Ireland was most active among intravenous drug users. Treatment in centres such as Trinity Court required a commitment from the patient to achieve abstinence from drugs. In light of the HIV epidemic, this policy was revised in 1992 to one of harm reduction.[12] This different approach recognised that the harms of drug use, such as the spread of HIV, were of a greater danger to society than drug use itself.[13] Harm reduction was implemented in the form of methadone maintenance and needle exchange programmes.

The first needle exchange opened in 1989[14] and there were about eleven others by the end of the 1990s.[15] There are now plans to offer needle exchange services at pharmacies.[16]

Head shopsEdit

Head shops did exist legally in Ireland, and were reported by authorities to be opening at a rate of one per week in January 2010. Some of the shops were open 24 hours a day, serving through a hatch at night.[17] The legality of the shops was discussed in Seanad Éireann that month, with an all-party motion being passed requesting the Government to introduce legislation to regulate the sale of products.[17] One head shop in Roscommon received objections from residents two weeks after opening for business that month.

Head shops received a lot of media attention in 2010, with one doctor describing on the television programme, Prime Time, patients of his who suffered hallucinations, anxiety and psychosis after experiencing "legal highs" party powders from head shop substances.[18] Politicians weighed in, with Chris Andrews in favour of outlawing head shops while Jim McDaid said this would be a "huge mistake" which would allow illegal street dealers to thrive.[18] There was controversy and irony when a judge renowned for his strict anti-drug sentencing discovered that a premises he had rented to a business in Naas contained a head shop, and evicted the operator.[19][20][21][22]

Attacks on head shopsEdit

A Dublin head shop exploded and caught fire on 12 February 2010, engulfing a neighbouring building in fire and the surrounding streets and quays in smoke, causing Capel Street to be closed for the day.[23] The blaze levelled two other businesses including a sex shop, as one of Dublin's busiest streets was evacuated.[24][25] A second head shop burned down on 16 February 2010 in Dublin.[26] On 10 March 2010, two pipe bombs were found outside two separate head shops in Athlone, and Garda bomb disposal experts closed two main streets in the town. The attacks were later traced to disgruntled drug dealers.[27][28]

Another burned down on 11 March 2010 in Sligo, and an adult shop also caught fire.[29] On 16 April 2010 in Dundalk, County Louth, a head shop was set alight in a petrol bomb attack. The county is home to then Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern and hours later plans for legislation for regulation of head shops got underway.[30]

On 28 March 2010, vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) claimed responsibility for planting an explosive device outside a head shop in Letterkenny, County Donegal. It was made safe by the security forces. RAAD issued a statement that it was the "first and only warning" the shop would receive; the head shop closed shortly afterwards.[31][32]

2010 legislationEdit

Many head shop products became illegal in Ireland on 23 August 2010[33] when the new Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010 became law.[34] The Act empowered Gardaí to seek court orders to close head shops suspected of selling drug-like products, with the onus on the owners to prove they are not doing so.

Following this legislation, the number of head shops declined dramatically from 112 to just 12.[35]

2015 legislationEdit

Before a Government order took effect in 2011, head shops had been legally selling methylethcathinone, a recreational drug. Earlier Government orders, also pursuant to the Misuse of Drugs Act, outlawed the possession of other head shop drugs like ecstasy and magic mushrooms. Stanislav Bederev, charged with methylethcathinone possession in 2012, challenged the constitutionality of such Government orders. On 10 March 2015, the Court of Appeal ruled in Bederev's favour, on the basis that the orders amounted to law-making, a power reserved for the Oireachtas. Emergency legislation to reinstate the ban on drugs previously banned by Government orders, which also include amphetamine, khat and ketamine, took effect on 12 March 2015.[36][37][38] The Court of Appeal ruling implicated pending cases involving possession of those drugs, and may potentially have led to appeals from those previously convicted of possession of those drugs.[39][40] However, in June 2016, the Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeal's ruling, finding the original Government orders constitutional, on the basis that the Government was bound to outlaw only drugs of the same nature as those already listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act, and that the Oireachtas was given the right to annul the Government's orders if the Oireachtas so chose.[41]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ needs reference
  2. ^ a b First report of the ministerial task force on measures to reduce the demand for drugs. Irish Government Stationery Office; 1996.
  3. ^ Report of working party on drug abuse. Irish Government Stationery Office; 1971.
  4. ^ Dáil debates, 1975. Volume 278, 20 February, Column 938
  5. ^ Coolmine Therapeutic Community
  6. ^ Dean, G.; O'Hare, A.; O'Connor, A.; Kelly, M.; Kelly, G. (1985). "The opiate epidemic in Dublin 1979-1983". Irish Medical Journal. 78 (4): 107–110. PMID 3997451.
  7. ^ Bradshaw J, Dean G. Drug misuse in Ireland, 1982–1983: investigation in a north central Dublin area, and in Galway, Sligo, and Cork. The Medico-Social Research Board; 1983.
  8. ^ a b Lyder, André (2005). Pushers Out: The Inside Story of Dublin's Anti-Drugs Movement. Trafford Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4120-5099-9.
  9. ^ a b Butler S. Drug problems and drug policies in Ireland: a quarter of a century reviewed. Administration. 1991;39(3):210{235.
  10. ^ O'Kelly FD. The natural history of injecting drug use in a Dublin community (1985-1995) [MD thesis]; 2000. Department of Community Health and General Practice, Trinity College, University of Dublin.
  11. ^ Comiskey, C.; Barry, J. (2001). "A capture-recapture study of the prevalence and implications of opiate use in Dublin". European Journal of Public Health. 11 (2): 198–200. doi:10.1093/eurpub/11.2.198. PMID 11420811.
  12. ^ Barry, J. (2002). "Policy response to opioid misuse in Dublin". Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 56 (1): 6–7. doi:10.1136/jech.56.1.6. PMC 1731997. PMID 11801613.
  13. ^ National Advisory Committee on Drugs, the National Drugs Strategy Team. Needle exchange provision in Ireland; 2008.
  14. ^ Butler, S.; Mayock, P. (2005). "'An Irish solution to an Irish problem': Harm reduction and ambiguity in the drug policy of the Republic of Ireland". International Journal of Drug Policy. 16 (6): 415–422. doi:10.1016/j.drugpo.2005.07.002.
  15. ^ Dillon L, O'Brien M. Drug-related infectious diseases. In: Moran R, editor. A collection of papers on drugs issues in Ireland. Dublin: Health Research Board; 2001. pp. 50–82.
  16. ^ O'Driscoll D, Keane R. Pharmacy Needle Exchange Programme Archived 28 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine [Conference presentation]; 2009. Needle Exchange Conference, Killarney.
  17. ^ a b "Dramatic increase in 'head shops'". RTÉ. 26 January 2010.
  18. ^ a b "'Head shops' booming as row rages over legal highs". Sunday Independent. By Aislinn hughes. Sunday 7 February 2010.
  19. ^ "'Head shop' asked to quit judge's outlet". The Irish Times. Thursday, 4 February 2010.
  20. ^ "Tough Irish judge unaware he was owner of 'legal high' shop". The Belfast Telegraph. By Eimear Ni Bhraonain, Thursday, 4 February 2010.
  21. ^ "Judge owns premises rented by Naas head shop". Leinster Leader. Published Date: 4 February 2010. By Paul O'Meara.
  22. ^ "Judge left red-faced as he is forced to boot out his tenant who opened a head shop next to the courthouse". By Cormac Byrne. Thursday 4 February 2010.
  23. ^ "Head shop fire in Dublin city centre". RTÉ. Friday, 12 February 2010 12:37.
  24. ^ "Three shops destroyed in Capel St fire" By Conor Feehan and Alan O'Keeffe. Friday 12 February, /home/moconnell06/Desktop/clongowes.net_thumb.png2010.
  25. ^ €450,000 cash found in Dublin 'head shop' after fire
  26. ^ Fire damages Dublin 'head shop', Charlie Taylor, The Irish Times, 17 February 2010
  27. ^ 'Head shops' target of pipe bomb attack Irish Independent 11 March 2010.
  28. ^ Garda superintendent slams "reckless" pipe bomb act Westmeath Independent, 18 March 2010.
  29. ^ Sligo head shop & adult store damaged in fire, RTÉ News, 11 March 2010
  30. ^ Fire breaks out at head shop in Dundalk, Irish Times 16 April 2010
  31. ^[permanent dead link]
  32. ^[permanent dead link]
  33. ^ S.I. No. 401/2010 – Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010 (Commencement) Order 2010. Irish Statute Book. 17 August 2010.
  34. ^ Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010 Irish Statute Book.
  35. ^ Irish Times - Minister seeks to ban more products sold in head shops (5 October 2011)
  36. ^ RTE.IE news report 10/03/15
  37. ^ O’Loughlin, Ann (11 March 2015). "Drugs Ruling: Law-making powers are restricted to Oireachtas". Irish Examiner. Retrieved 19 April 2019.
  38. ^ Connolly, Johnny (1 October 2015). "Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Act 2015". Drugnet Ireland. Issue 55, Autumn 2015: 11–12.
  39. ^ Minihan, Mary; Hilliard, Mark; Gallagher, Conor. "Drugs ruling will impact on pending cases, says expert". The Irish Times. Retrieved 19 April 2019.
  40. ^ Hurst, Luke (11 March 2015). "Class-A Drugs Accidentally Legalised in Ireland". Newsweek. Retrieved 19 April 2019.
  41. ^ Courts Service of Ireland (22 June 2016). "Bederev -v- Ireland & ors : Judgments & Determinations : Courts Service of Ireland". Retrieved 19 April 2019.

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